It was an ironic paradox. Here, David Gilvar and David Burr had built a hugely successful business helping other companies project the right image. But now the growth of their own company was threatened by the image it projected.

Their product -- a lightweight, versatile trade show, or visual communication, exhibit system called Outline -- had done well, with sales climbing from $260,000 in 1980 to $2.5 million in 1982. One of the keys to that success had been the decision in early 1982 to shift from offering the hardware alone to offering finished exhibits, with client-designed panels installed in the folding framework.

That meant trying to reach the design specifiers at advertising agencies and corporate marketing departments who would incorporate the Outline system into the exhibit designs they prepared. But in going after that market, Outline's sales staff actually had to battle against the image the company put forth in its literature. Outline Inc. -- then called Extraversion Inc. -- wanted to present itself as a graphically sophisticated company and attract a design-conscious buyer. But the image the company projected, from its logo through all of its promotional ma terial, was still that of a hardware manufacturer relatively unconcerned about graphic presentation.

"Our brochures and literature were the type of thing that any design-oriented person would probably throw in the wastepaper basket," recalls Gilvar, chair man of the Waltham, Mass.-based company. "[The salespeople] would makes a demonstration, and the fellow would say that's the greatest thing I've ever seen. And after they left, they left behind this terrible brochure that was, if anything, detrimental to marketing.

"Or they'd call up a vice-president of marketing, who'd say, 'Send me a brochure. If I like what I see, I'll make an appointment.' Then they'd send this terrible brochure and never get in the door."

In late 1982, Gilvar and Burr, Outline's president, decided that what the company needed was not just a new brochure, but a complete graphic redesign that would put the company's image in tune with its market. The makeover took more than a year to complete, but it has given Outline's marketing a powerful boost. "We are now getting to people who I'm sure were not in our corner at all with the older version of our marketing pieces," says one Outline executive. Revenues this year, meanwhile, are expected to hit $10.5 million.

"We knew if we could ever communicate to people that our product was that good and that we had something that would make people's lives easier and they could really use it -- if we came up with a promotional piece that could do that, we'd lie off and running. We didn't have anything that did that, but we knew we had [a product] that was unique and could be sold throughout the United States -- not a $10-million company, but a $100-million or $200-million company."

So, in December 1982, Outline began its search for a design firm. The task was beyond the reach of its in-house graphics staff. "Within our framework, there's no one on staff that's involved in a day-today corporate identity program," says David Peck, manager of Outline's visual services.

They had some trouble, however, in finding the right firm. They began by checking out some of the bigger design houses in New York. "We knew, however, that when push came to shove, we'd be 53d on the totem pole in terms of priority," says Burr.

"These big firms were trying to sell us on giving us a new look and a new fancy brochure, a fancy mailing piece, a fancy logo. But they never identified with us and our marketing problems and goals," says Gilvar. "They didn't make us feel like we would be part of the creative process and that our ideas would be valued."

Finally, they discovered a communications-design firm that seemed to suit their needs: Lapham/Miller Associates Inc., of Andover, Mass., and New London, N.H. "They said to us, 'Now, we'll have to sit down and learn about your company, your customers, and your competition so that we can solve that communications problem,' " says Gilvar. "We said, 'Okay, let's talk about it.' "

During that initial meeting in February 1983, "We spent about 85% of the time talking about their product," recalls Ken Miller, president of Lapham/Miller. "Their enthusiasm was infectious. We became equally excited about what we could do for them." There were three more preliminary meetings in which Miller and Ralph Lapham, vice-president of the design firm, probed further into Outline's market, goals, and problems. "They got into our heads and found out exactly what our problems were, what we wanted to accomplish," says Gilvar. Lapham/Miller proposed a thorough graphic makeover, including a new logo, a new brochure, and a mailer -- the first in the company's history. Gilvar and Burr gave the OK, launching a series of intensive meetings with the designers.

Through those meetings, Gilvar and Burr hammered out with Lapham/Miller a whole new identity for Outline -- more consistent, more sophisticated look with an entirely new approach to presenting their product. "Traditionally, people in our industry show what they produced for other people," explains Gilvar. "The idea of selling using a generic ad and showing it in a classy way and being able to sell our message without peddling the greatest exhibit we just did for Sears or American Express was the direction in which we decided to go."

"We had to present their exhibit system as a tasteful complement to an end-user or design specifier and stimulate interest in the various configurations," explains Miller. "We wanted the end-user to dream along with its possibilities. There's very little of 'Put tab A into slot B,' which to all of us distinguished Outline's product from the competition."

As the generic graphic display on the exhibit system, the image of a lemon, they decided, would be their initial theme. "We tried to show that if we could sell something as generic as a lemon and make it attractive, prospective customers could make their own judgment about carrying the system," Miller recalls.

"We were in and out of 10 to 15 meetings with them, doing sketches, then coming back and forth with new ideas," says Lapham. "We must have tried at least 100 different approaches, all of them with the idea that it would be clean, with a kind of Germanic-European look, primarily playing with the most important part of the exhibit, the unfolding part of it."

Lapham took those ideas and translated them into a logo and a capabilities brochure using the lemon premise. The final product went to the printer in March 1984. Other than the color of the lemons, the brochure's chief colors are mauve and gray, "very contemporary colors in the design and architecture world," according to Lapham. The direct-mail piece has the same look as the brochure, carrying out the theme of making a lemon look good. Even Outline's sales offices were painted the same mauve and gray to reflect the new identity.

Outline's direct-mail piece is intended to generate leads for the sales staff. The first mailing was dropped on June 15, and the company plans to mail to a different segment of the market each month. Says David Peck, "One week after it had been dropped, out of the 25 responses we've received a day, 4 or 5 would have some thing extraneous written on the card, like 'Keep up this great image."

The overhaul didn't come cheap. After a year and a half, Outline has run up a tab of nearly $150,000 with Lapham/Miller, including production and printing costs. But Gilvar is enthusiastic about the results. "It's been tremendously successful. But it's the quality of the response we're getting that's most important. The brochures have given us tremendous credibility. None of our stuff gets throw in the wastebasket.

"Now, when we leave a piece behind a an advertising agency, it is well received. We're working on a big order for Estee Lauder in their Clinique area. Now a graphic designer working for a cosmetic company thinks if we're chic, we can make them look chic."